Undermining Cultural Associations

Undermining Cultural Associations

Nahmad Projects is an initiative of London-based gallerist Joseph Nahmad, in collaboration with former Sotheby’s coordinator Tommaso Calabro. For their newest exhibition, three artists’ conceptions of the psychological and cultural complexities of sexuality highlight their historical and theoretical context: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jason Rhoades and Pierre Auguste Renoir. We catch up with Nahmad to discuss the themes central to the show.

A: How do you think that Bliss tackles certain taboos around sexuality depicted in artwork, and do you think that artists have a responsibility to neutralise or amplify certain issues in contemporary society?
JN: I Think Bliss tackles certain taboos around sexuality by showing a number of different approaches to sexuality itself, therefore underlining how complex the subject is. The Rhoades’ semiotic research on the word vagina, for instance, highlights the censorship that the word has been subjected to since the 13th century. I don’t believe that artists have specific responsibilities to discuss sexuality. History has proven that artists are driven to discuss problematic issues in their own society. If sexuality or sexual censorship is one such issue, artists will certainly discuss it, but it’s not for me to assign “responsibilities.”

A: Could you briefly discuss the works on show from each artist?
JN: We brought together these three artists to draw out new connections on the theme of sexuality. The nude for Renoir became a dominant subject through the last decades of his career. Jason Rhoades’ installation is an homage to the vagina, where almost 50 euphemisms for the vagina hover in a cloud of neons. You’ll notice that the phrases oscillate from the ridiculous to the religious, but none are negative or engage with the cultural tradition of the vagina as a threatening place, say the idea of the “vagina dentata” trapping men.

It is rather a humorous celebration of the body, and a challenge to our cultural taboo of mentioning it. Felix Gonzalez-Torres has more of a dark undertone to his approach to sexuality. “Untitled” (Revenge) was made in 1991, not long after the death of his partner, Ross Laycock, from AIDS. Visitors can eat one candy, but only one, and experience that sweetness fade without the possibility of a repeat. “Untitled” (Beginning) was made in 1994, when he himself was diagnosed with AIDS. These bead curtains are frequently named in reference to diseases, and this act of passing through, feeling the rustle of the beads against your skin and hitting against one another, is designed to enhance the awareness that sensation is temporal, quickly lost.

A: How do the artists’ work differ and compare in their depictions of sexuality and eroticism? Are there any narrative threads or thematic contexts that run through all of the artworks on display?
JN: The 19th century approach that Renoir takes to sexuality is based on a painter-model relationship typical of the period. The woman is looked at, almost objectified and idealised by the painter. Yet, his nudes show real women: one can feel and sense the flesh. The approach of Jason Rhoades is certainly provocative, but as the same time incredibly interesting. He linked sexuality to a wider historical narrative that started from the 13th century, centred on the word vagina and its synonyms. Felix Gonzalez-Torres is conceptual as he encourages visitors to take part in the construction and distraction of the work itself, which is itself connected to his personal life, including his love stories.

A: How is the concept of Bliss is represented in each of the artists’ practice: as an abstract and individual notion, how do they add their own perceptions and imagination to its definition?
JNIf we take the definition of bliss to be “a state of perfect happiness”, we can see that all three artists explore the cultural association with eroticism as an access to that state. That isn’t, however, to say that they believe “perfect” happiness is ever possible. Jason Rhoades installation in BLISS is a brilliant illustration of his approach to the erotic. In it, his references to the vagina form a sublime cloud of light, designed to make you laugh and wonder at the same time. But the synergy between the vagina and the male fantasist is not a perfect one: the male presence in his installation consists of a small courgette, dripping white fluid onto a bundle of rags in the corner. Renoir depicts his models in the twilight between being otherworldly nymphs or goddesses and their presence as living models. He captured his models in often awkward poses, trying to pin down that perfection. No sooner than the paintbrush touches the canvas, that moment starts to evaporate. Concordantly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ approach to eroticism is all about the fleeting nature of pleasure – the threat of immanent loss.

A: How do you think that art, in general, has changed in its construction of eroticism from 19th century through to contemporary society – as artists working within the digital era what might be the differences to note?
Social taboos have changed and so has art. Rhoades made this piece in 2004, and while that’s not so long ago, the communication landscape has completely transformed society. He engaged with what there was of the digital sharing era by setting up an html website to gather more words. Perhaps now he would have data-mined terms using analytics programs, and called for contributions through social media.

A: How is this exhibition one that is both dynamic and engaging for its audiences?
JN: The way we decided to curate this show places the visitor at the centre of the exhibition, both cocooned and captured by the works. For instance, in order to walk into the gallery, the visitor is obliged to walk through the heavy beads which make up Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Beginning).  It is simply mesmerising.

Bliss runs at Nahmad Projects until 8 December.  Find out more: www.nahmadprojects.com

1.Jason Rhoades Untitled, 2004 Courtesy of Nahmad Projects, London Photo: Benedict Johnson.